All About Scale

The beauty of using LEGO as a creative medium is that it allows you to bring to life anything that your imagination can conjure up. More often than not, the inspiration for our LEGO builds comes from things we are already familiar with, whether it is from real life or from our favorite fictional universe (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.).

If we limit our discussion to things from real life for now, what exactly is involved in designing a LEGO replica of your own house, a well-known skyscraper or maybe even the Titanic ? Let us talk about the concepts of scale and proportion which are integral to art and interior design, and are applicable to LEGO builds as well.

Scale and proportion

The scale of a LEGO model is its size relative to the real version it is trying to represent. Say you are building a LEGO model of a building that is 100 feet tall and you want your model to be 1 foot tall, you could express the scale as a ratio 1:100 where the first number refers to the size of your model and the second number refers to the size of the real building. See Figure 1.

Now, this 1:100 ratio applies to all the dimensions in the model and not just the height. And so if the real building is 20 feet wide, your model would have to be 20/100 = 0.2 foot wide or your model would not have the right proportions (it would either look too skinny or too squat compared to the real building).

Proportion refers to the relative size of the different components of your model. All these components need to have a consistent scale (size relative to the real version) for your model to be a faithful replica of the real building. In the above example, it is not just the height and width that need to have the same scale, but the scale has to be consistent (as much as possible) down to the smallest details including the doors, windows, shutters, etc.

This will ensure that the resulting model has the correct proportions and can almost pass for the real thing especially when viewed at some distance.

Upscaled bricks

A good way to illustrate the concept of scale is by using upscaled bricks. They are upsized replicas of LEGO bricks created using actual LEGO bricks. A common scale used for upscaled bricks is 3x or 3:1 and that means that the overall dimensions of the upscaled brick would be 3 times that of a regular brick. Let us use a 2×4 brick that is 2 studs wide and 4 studs deep as an example. The upscaled version would be 6 studs wide and 12 studs deep. The height of the brick (not including the studs) would be 3 times the height of a normal brick.

If we don’t worry too much about representing the underside of a regular brick accurately in our upscaled version, we can start off by using 1×4, 1×6, 1×10 and 1×12 bricks to create the walls of the upscaled brick that is 6 studs wide, 12 studs deep and 3 bricks high. We would end up with the top being open and exposed studs which are not at the right scale for the upscaled version (see Figure 2). We need to somehow close the hole at the top and cover up the exposed studs and one way to do that would be the replace the top layer of bricks with 2 layer of plates topped by one layer of tiles (remember that 3 layers of plates/tiles have the same height as a brick).

There are many options available for large plates to over the top surface of the upscaled bricks but we will use 3×3 plates because they occupy the same space in the upscaled version as one stud (the unit of measurement) in the actual brick (Figure 3). Now let us look into what is needed to represent the actual bumps at the top of the 2×4 brick in our upscaled version. Each bump is cylindrical (see Figure 4) with a diameter of 0.48 cm (1.5 plates) and height of 0.16 cm (0.5 plate). In the upscaled version, this bump needs to be 4.5 plates wide and 1.5 plates high.

The closest we can get to that using available LEGO elements is by stacking a 2×2 round tile on top of a 2×2 round plate. This combination has a diameter of 2 studs or 5 plates and a height of 2 plates. The upscaled bump has to be attached in the center of the 3×3 plate representing each “stud” in the upscaled version and so we use 1×1 plates to allow the round plates/tile combination to be attached and cover the rest of the exposed studs with regular tiles. And voila, we have a 3x upscaled version that does indeed look very much like a regular 2×4 brick (Figure 5).

As we have seen in this example, there is always some rounding or compromises involved in scale models and these are acceptable as long as they do not detract from the creation of a reasonably faithful replica of the original. This is also one of the few cases where the LEGO model is actually bigger than the real-life object (a 2×4 LEGO brick) it is trying to represent. In most other cases, as we will see, the LEGO model ends up being much smaller than its real-life counterpart.

The minifigure scale

Introduced in 1978, minifigures or minifigs for short are small articulated figurines that are either packaged as a part of LEGO sets or sold separately. They are composed of body parts (head, torso, arms, hands, hips and legs) that are interchangeable (Figure 6). These parts come in different colors and with various designs printed on them, making minifigures highly customizable. There is also a wealth of accessories available that can be added to minifigures to customize them even more. These include hair and headgear (that can be attached to the stud atop a minifigure’s head) and various utensils, weapons, etc. that can be attached to minifigure hands (which are essentially clips).

In traditional art, when we categorize the scale of a painting or sculpture, we humans use ourselves and the world around us for reference. A life-size sculpture has a 1:1 scale and has the same size as the real-life person or object it is depicting. Other terms like large scale (used for Michelangelo’s David), monumental scale (used for Mt. Rushmore), small scale and miniature scale are all relative to the life-size scale.

If we think of a miniature LEGO world inhabited by minifigures representing us humans, it makes sense to categorize the scales used for LEGO builds by using the minifigure scale as a reference. But unfortunately it is not always easy to come up with a single number for the minifigure scale and the reason for this is the proportions of the minifigures themselves.

A standard minifigure is 4 bricks tall (3.84 cm) not counting the stud on top of the head. It is exactly 4 cm tall if you include the stud as well. The torso is 2 studs wide (1.6 cm) not including the arms on either side. If we consider just the height, an average human is about 170 cm tall and that would make the minifigure scale to be around 1:42. However, the average width of a human torso measured at the shoulders is 43 cm and based on that measurement, the minifigure scale would have to be closer to 1:27 (Figure 7).

So clearly, a minifigure is a rather cartoonish representation of a human being with the overall proportions being more squat than that of an average human. Scales in the range of 1:25 to 1:50 should work but most LEGO builders think of something closer to 1:42 when they talk about minifigure scale.

The scales used for LEGO builds are generally categorized using the minifigure scale as a reference. Any scale smaller than the minifigure scale is called microscale and this term encompasses the entire gamut of scales smaller than around 1:50. It is no surprise that a majority of the LEGO sets and MOCs out there can be classified as microscale models. Another common scale is the Miniland scale used for most of the large models you see in Miniland displays found at various Legoland Parks and Discovery Centers. Here the figures representing humans are built using actual bricks and are typically about 11 bricks (10.56 cm) tall (Figure 8). Based on the height alone, this puts Miniland scale at around 1:16 but building human figures using regular bricks offers many more opportunities for customization (of even the height of the figure) and so slightly smaller scales like 1:20 also qualify as Miniland scale.

Picking a scale for your model

As you can imagine, there is a trade-off associated with scale. The bigger the scale, the more accurately you can represent all the elements of the original version in your LEGO model. But too large of a scale can result in a massive, unwieldy model with a prohibitively high piece count and cost. On the flip side, using too small of a scale can force you to compromise on accuracy (probably more than you would find acceptable). The trick, as with everything, is finding the sweet spot that works best for you.

Let us look at a few examples showing how we can pick the scales for LEGO versions of two buildings from real life – one is a rather simple 2-story house (see Figure 9) not unlike any you would find in a typical North American neighborhood and the other is one of the most famous buildings in the world – the Empire State Building in New York. We will then see how the dimensions of the real buildings can be translated to LEGO dimensions for the scale we pick for each one.

The dimensions of the house are shown in Figure 10. It has a footprint of about 40 x 30 feet and a height of 30 feet up to the top of the roof. If you want to build a model of say your own house you can get the dimensions from a floorplan drawing if you have one available. And for any house or other building that is available to view on Google Earth, you can use that tool to make the measurements. Now let us assume we want to design a minifigure scale (1:42) model of the house.

The width of the house is 40×12 = 480 inches which is equivalent to 1219 cm. Divide that by 42 to get the width of our model which would be around 29 cm. Given that each stud is 0.8 cm wide, this works out to 29/0.8 = around 36 studs. When it comes to door and window pieces, we are limited to increments of an even number of studs. If each of the windows and the door is 4 studs wide, that leaves 24 studs for the wall segments on the front of the house and we can split them into 4 segments that are 5, 7, 7 and 5 studs wide respectively.

The depth of the house is 30 feet which works out to around 27 studs. An even number of studs always works better for the roof (as we will see in Chapter 3) and so we will round the depth of our LEGO version to 28 studs. If our windows are again 4 studs wide, we can make the wall segments 5, 10 and 5 studs respectively.

So how many layers of bricks do we need for each floor of the house ? To figure that out, take the height of each floor (10×12 = 120 inches or 305 cm) and divide it by the scale factor 42 and we get around 7. The height of each brick is 0.96 cm which is close enough to 1 cm and so each floor of our house needs to be 7 bricks tall. Now let us lay out the pieces to create the basic frame of the house (Figure 11). We will look at adding the roof and other cosmetic details like the window shutters in the chapters that follow.

Now that we have seen how the scale calculations work for a regular house in the neighborhood, let us turn our attention to one of the most well-known buildings in the world – the Empire State Building (Figure 12). It was the tallest building in the world for about 40 years and still remains one of the most iconic landmarks in the world. What would it take to build a LEGO model of the Empire State Building ?

The Empire State Building is one those buildings that easily lends itself to representation in LEGO form. If you break down the shape of the building into its components, it is basically a stack of 7 cuboids (like cubes but with rectangular faces) including a wide base (see Figure 13). The footprints of the cuboids get progressively smaller as the building rises. We normally associate this classic tapered shape with Art Deco skyscrapers built in the early 1930s. This shape was not just a stylistic choice but was in fact necessitated by the zoning regulations that were in place in New York City at that time.

There are numerous LEGO versions of the Empire State Building out there built to various different scales – including two official sets (21002 and 21046) that LEGO themselves released. These LEGO models range from tiny (under 8 inches tall) to massive (over 25 feet tall). So what is the best scale to use for the Empire State Building ?

The height of the Empire State Building is 1454 feet according to Wikipedia. Divide that by 42 and we get around 35. This means that a minifig scale model of the Empire State Building would be 35 feet tall ! That is even bigger than those massive models you see in a Miniland and is clearly not practical.

The right scale to use for your model comes down to your goals for the model (how accurate you want it to be) and your constraints in terms of size and cost. In 2017 I designed and built a model of the Empire State Building that stands a little over 6 feet tall and uses around 20000 LEGO pieces (see Figure 14).

While most people may not have the wherewithal or the interest to build a model quite so big, I am hoping that the insights I provide into the process involved in designing my model will help you create your own version (at whatever scale works for you) of the Empire State Building (or any other building, for that matter).

The first step in figuring out the scale to use for a LEGO model is getting the measurements of the real version. For something like the Empire State Building, you can get these measurements either from architectural drawings (if you can find them) or the measuring tool in Google Earth. As we have seen, the Empire State Building is made up of a stack of cuboids and so what measurements do we need ? To start, we can get size of the tallest cuboid and use that for our scale calculations.

This cuboid covers the largest section of the building comprising 42 floors (floors 30 through 71). It is possible to make precise measurements in Google Earth by zooming into the 2D view of this section of the Empire State Building and using the Measure tool (that has the ruler icon). See Figure 15. Using this method, we can determine that the footprint of the tallest section of the Empire State Building is 184×134 feet.

As for my goal with this model (and the rest of my skyscraper models), I wanted to design the smallest possible model that could be reasonably accurate. Now, this standard of accuracy may vary from one person to another, but in my case, I wanted to at least preserve the window configuration from the original building if not the actual floor count. If we take a closer look at the tallest section of the building, we see that the wider side has windows that are arranged like this


(where x represents a window) with the middle portion recessed. There are 2-wide and 3-wide banks of windows but one nice thing about this building is that all the individual windows appear to have the same width which is also similar to the spacing between the different banks of windows. So if we were to represent each window using one stud, the longer side of the tower would be 30 studs wide. The shorter side has 7 banks of 2-wide windows


and that adds up to a total of 22 studs.

Next we figure out what scale we would be using if we have 184 feet represented using 30 studs. Each stud is 0.8 cm wide and so 30 studs would be 30×0.8 = 24 cm wide. We need to convert the width of the real building into metric units as well. 184 feet is roughly 5608 cm. So our scale ends up being 24:5608 or roughly 1:230. We arrive at roughly the same number if we use the dimensions of the shorter side (134 feet) and the 22 studs we would be using to represent it in our model (22 studs = 17.6 cm, 134 feet = 4084 cm. The scale is 17.6:4084 = 1:230).

Once we have the scale, it is easy to know how tall our model will be – just divide the total height of the Empire State Building (1454 feet) by 230 and you get 76 inches (6 feet, 4 inches). Next, we need to figure out how tall each floor of the building will be in terms of brick heights (actually I prefer to use the smaller unit of plate heights). We can once again use Google Earth and get the difference in elevations between the top of the section of interest (which happens to be 917 feet) and its bottom (which is 415 feet). See Figure 16. This difference is 502 feet for a section that has 42 floors and so the height of each floor is 502/42 = 12 feet.

So how many plates does 12 feet translate to ? 12 feet are equivalent to 366 cm which in our model should translate to 366/230 = 1.59 cm. This is equivalent to 1.59/0.32 = 5 plates. It is important to keep this in mind when we design the model. We may be tempted to use 2 brick heights (6 plate heights) per floor to reduce the number of pieces needed but we have to understand how that affects the proportions of the model. If we simply build the largest section of the Empire State Building with 42 floors that are each 2 bricks high, it would look stretched compared to the real building.

If it is easier to use 2 bricks for each floor, we will need to reduce the floor count in the right proportion. So instead of building 42 floors that are each 5 plates high, we can instead build 42×5/6 = 35 floors that are 2 bricks (or 5 plates) high. The number of floors will have to be scaled down in a similar way in the remaining sections of the model. I usually try to avoid such compromises but in this particular case, the significant reduction in piece count and the simplification of the building process makes it worthwhile.

We will continue to use this model of the Empire State Building in later chapters to help illustrate some of the other concepts and techniques that come into play in the design and construction of the actual model. Now that we have seen how a scale of around 1:230 is the smallest scale that can be used to build a reasonably accurate model of the Empire State Building, let us look into some of the trade-offs we have to make for models that are smaller (and obviously less expensive to build).

The original LEGO Architecture set (21002) of the Empire State Building uses just 77 pieces and stands a mere 7.4 inches tall (see Figure 17). That would put the scale of the model at around 1:2400 (less than a tenth the scale of my 1:230 model). At this tiny scale, the only thing we can hope to represent (albeit not very accurately) is the instantly recognizable outer shape of the building. This is because the 1:2400 scale simply does not allow for any of the other details (like windows) to be represented.

The newer Architecture set (21046) of the Empire State Building that LEGO released in 2019 takes things to the next level (see Figure 18). It stands at 21″ tall making the scale around 1:800. Here the outer shape of the building can be represented a little more accurately but once again there is no way to correctly represent the window configurations (the main section being just 8 studs wide). However, the designer of the set was able to successfully create the appearance of more detail by lining almost the entire façade of the model with 1×2 grille tiles.

The use of 1×2 grille tiles to mimic window detail in skyscraper builds is a pretty effective technique that was popularized by Spencer Rezkalla and Rocco Buttliere with their 1:650 renditions of various well-known skyscrapers. The downside here is that this significantly increases the complexity of the design. Instead of being able to simply stack bricks and plates, we need to utilize sideways building (or SNOT) techniques to be able to attach the 1×2 grille tile pieces to the outer surface of the model. We will be covering some of these techniques in Chapter 5.